Conferences Meet Instant Gratification

I talk to strangers.

Maybe it has something to do with having gone to high school in Times Square during the pre-Giuliani era, where strangers would get in your face and start yakking at you whether you liked it or not. It turned me into an “accidental extrovert” and gave me the skills to survive daily unwanted encounters with various hustlers and nut-jobs.

These skills have also served me well in times when work has called upon me to staff exhibit booths at conferences. I’ll chat anyone up, unless they’re clearly psychotic. That happens. There have been certain conferences where my colleagues and I had to develop coded physical gestures so we could rescue one another from such conversations. A scratch of the chin and a colleague would magically appear to pull me away for an “urgent and important meeting”.

That said, the kinds of surreptitious conversations which can happen at live conferences become even more meaningful and valuable as time goes by. The world of commerce is rapidly devolving to the point where the “chat bot” has become the lowest-common-denominator form of communication. Friendly customer support rep “Kenny” or “Whitney” magically appears in a chat window in the lower right corner of nearly every site you visit, asking how they can help. It’s the modern day equivalent of “Clippy” — that persistent cartoony nuisance who constantly showed up, uninvited, in Microsoft Word to disrupt our work. What kind of “help” would Clippy offer us today, if it were resurface in the era of shelter-in-place work-from-home?

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In our world of diminishing human interaction, which can be especially difficult for us extroverts, let us consider how virtual events and conferences can be shaped in order to meet the wants of people like myself who thrive in face-to-face interactions. Here is a hypothetical case study involving an extroverted persona named “Claudia”.


Claudia is a payroll administrator at a baby food company. She has reached a breaking point at her job because the company’s payroll platform has become broken beyond reproach. Employees aren’t getting paid on time so they are becoming angrier by the minute. As a result, productivity has slowed to the point that strained mushy peas and carrots have completely disappeared from store shelves. The babies are pissed — their union, the “Diaper League Local 802 AFL-CIO” has declared a general strike. Claudia is in desperate need of a new payroll platform and must find a solution. Fast.

Luckily for her, the “National Association of Human Resources Humans” is having its annual conference. Because of COVID-19 its gone virtual so she’ll get a chance to learn about the latest and greatest in payroll admin platforms from the comfort of her “home office” (unfinished basement).

As an extrovert, one of the things Claudia really likes about the live conference experience is the energy of the people who staff the various booths in the exhibit hall — she feeds off of that. Even so, she finds the exhibit hall itself an unwieldy animal to wrassle with. Since exhibits are often grouped together in no particularly logical fashion, she often finds herself wandering about in a search for companies that offer the type of solution she is looking for. It’s a total time-suck, wears out her legs, fries her brain, and as a result she sometimes loses consciousness at the evening networking dinners. Nodding off into a bowl of lobster bisque is not exactly the best look for a human resources professional.

A key advantage of the virtual conference is we can do away with all that. In an online format, if done the right way, we can have a virtually infinite means of search, sorting, and discovery of virtual exhibitors in a virtually unlimited variety of virtual categorizations.

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When crafting the search functionality of a virtual exhibit hall, the key principle to keep in mind is to

MAKE IT QUICK AND EASY FOR ATTENDEES TO SEARCH FOR AND FIND THE PRODUCTS AND SERVICES THEY ARE LOOKING FOR.

If Claudia is searching for “payroll administration platforms” and has to spend time weeding out exhibitors offering “performance review management platforms”, she’s going to turn in her own “performance review” at the end of the conference: “Exhibit hall sucks!”

OK, now Claudia has done her search and narrowed the exhibitors down to those that offer payroll administration platforms. There are 27 of them. She decides to have a brief read-through of the summary paragraph of each one. The first is a company is called PAY-ME-NOW TECHNOLOGIES and their summary paragraph reads:

“The mission of PAY-ME-NOW is to disrupt the thought leadership funnel by leveraging seamless distributed and scalable omnichannel dashboards which engage targeted awareness of optimized mission critical insights into big data learnings.”

Next!!!

PLEASE SPARE US THE MISSION STATEMENT.

The next search result is a company called “Personable Person Purse” (PPP) which has the following summary paragraph:

“Please your personnel with our powerful payroll platform that promptly puts pay in the pockets of your people.”

MAKE IT EASY FOR THE CUSTOMER TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IT IS YOU HAVE TO OFFER.

“Possibly the perfect platform” she thinks, and clicks through to their virtual exhibit.

Now that Claudia has found a potential vendor, and is willing to invest her time to visit their virtual booth, she comes with certain expectations based on her past experiences vising exhibits at live, physical conferences. In the live scenario she would want to:

  1. Get a high-level sense of whether the product/service is a good fit for her needs. This would normally be in the format of a stage presentation that includes a description of the value position, a demo of key features, and customer success stories. She’d be willing to invest 15–20 minutes of her time to watch the presentation, and if she’s not hooked on PPP within that timeframe she’d move on to the next exhibit. Assuming she’s taken the bait, her next step would be to:
  2. Dive deeper on the product. She would walk over to a demo pod staffed by a product expert who has in-depth knowledge of the product as well as its practical application. She could ask questions, get informed answers, and have a dialogue about her specific wants and needs based on her particular use-case scenario. If she determined the platform could be a good fit her company, her next step would be to:
  3. Talk to a sales rep to discuss pricing and deployment. Would the cost of the PPP platform fit within her budget constraints? Could she get it up and running quickly? Remember . . . the babies! They’re still out on strike! If all looked promising the sales rep would:
  4. Schedule a follow up for after the conference. Close the sale and deploy the product, fulfilling Claudia’s wants and needs. The promise of the live conference would be manifested!

With those expectations in mind, let’s think about how an exhibitor can meet Claudia’s needs in a virtual medium. An overarching reality to always keep in the front of your mind is:

IN A VIRTUAL CONFERENCE, SOMETHING “BETTER” IS JUST A CLICK OR SWIPE AWAY. HOOK AN ATTENDEE’S ATTENTION WITHIN THE FIRST 2 MINUTES OR YOU’RE SCREWED.

It’s the first day of the conference, Claudia just watched the keynote, and now she’s visiting the virtual exhibit floor. She’s done a search for payroll administration platform providers and discovered PPP — she decides to pay them a visit.

  1. Upon landing in the virtual booth, a 30-second commercial rolls. Unless it holds her attention, while communicating what the company has to offer, she bounces and moves on to the next exhibitor. Forget the 15–20 minutes of the live conference, the window of opportunity in the virtual world is waaaaaay narrower. After all it’s takes just a click or a swipe, as opposed to a 200 yard haul through a physical exhibit hall, to move on to the next “better” thing. But for now, let’s assume the best — that PPP invested in producing a kick-ass commercial. Claudia is hooked. Now she wants to:
  2. Deep-dive into the product. Remember, as an extrovert she wants to do this face-to-face with another human being — have an actual conversation, not wind up in a chat window. That will turn her off right away, her attention will be lost. Clicking on a “visit our demo pod” button, she is brought into a live video conference where a product specialist is in the midst of a demo. There’s a queue to allow attendees to, on a first-come-first-served basis, have a chance to interact with the product specialist without being interrupted by other attendees. I want to point out that this is a significant improvement in comparison to the live conference demo pod experience, where there are often several people vying for the attention of the product specialist at once. Claudia gets her turn, has an informed face-to-face conversation, and decides to take the next step. The product specialist passes her off into a virtual breakout room with:
  3. A sales rep. Via video conference they have a face-to-face 1:1 discussion about pricing and deployment. Since, in any sales scenario, body language is an important factor in building trust, they develop a rapport, agree on next steps, and ride off together into the sunset.

IN ORDER TO BUILD TRUST WITH AN EXTROVERT, A VIRTUAL CONFERENCE EXHIBITOR NEEDS TO OFFER FACE-TO-FACE INTERACTION.

So what about the wants and needs of the introvert — the flip side of the coin? That’s the topic of next week’s article. In the meantime I’m going to drag my extroverted ass down to Dolores park and have a meaningful face-mask to face-mask conversation with a total stranger and thus become that nut-job in Times Square, I guess.

Convention Exhibits: The Bizarre Bazaar

If I blindfolded and kicked you into the middle of an exhibit hall in any convention center in the world, there’s no way you’d be able to tell me what city, state, or country you were in. No matter where you are, the odoriferous off-gassing of low-grade carpeting combined with migraine-inducing lighting and a sound that can only be described as a hundred FM radios all tuned to a different station all add up to “exhibit hall”.

Just like the uniformity of the sensory experience itself, there is uniformity to the motivation of exhibitors. That motivation is money. Companies exhibit at conferences to acquire sales leads, build awareness of their brand, and (in some cases) to engage in good-old-fashioned “buy something now or I’m gonna punch you in your face”.

“Put. That. Coffee. DOWN! Coffee is for closers ONLY.” (Image credit: New Line Cinema)

Being called upon by your employer to staff a conference exhibit booth is like being entered into a reality show called “Enterprise Gone Retail”. No matter where you sit on the corporate totem pole, you’re going to be an “Apple Store Employee” for the day. If you’re lucky you’ll get to be one of the “Geniuses” behind a demo pod, otherwise you may wind up becoming one of the floor-walkers who has to answer the question “so, what does your company do?” five hundred times a days. For some of us it’s being “face-to-face with customers,” and for others it’s “having customers in your face”.

A great deal of effort, human power, money, and ability to go-with-the-flow are required to pull off a successful conference exhibit. I’ve had more than my fair share of experience working exhibits at conferences all over the world as a demo-jockey, stage presenter, and one of those stand around and answer “what do you guys do” people.

We’ve also done it ourselves at Wrecking Ball, and got to experience the entire end-to-end of what it takes to pull it off first-hand.

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Our exhibit booth at the eMerge Americas conference in the Miami Beach Convention Center

Let’s take look at the “customer journey” of the live conference exhibitor. Transforming the live exhibit into a virtual experience is one of the greatest challenges we face right now, and we need to figure it out soon because a lot of money flows in this part of the industry —not just to and from exhibitors — it’s a major funding & profit center for the conferences themselves.

Here’s a fictitious, but highly realistic hypothetical use-case of a live conference exhibitor from the days before the world went all wacky.


TV star Danny Partridge has a business selling autographed pictures of himself as well as his own line of branded merchandise. For those of you who don’t know who Danny Partridge is, he was a character in the hit TV show “The Partridge Family” about a family of kids and their mom who had a band that toured the country in a school bus. They mainly performed in cocktail lounges.

  1. Looking for ways to grow his autographed picture and branded merchandise business, Danny decides that San Diego Comic Con would be a great conference for him to have an exhibit at. Since his target audience will be there, and the attendance averages 130,000 people or so, he could make some serious bank.
  2. He gets in touch with one of the sales reps at Comic Con and she recommends a 20×30 foot exhibit space at a cost of $10,000. Seems like a pretty good chunk of real estate, so he goes for it.
  3. Once he signs the contract, the sales rep tells him he’s going to need an eye-catching exhibit booth because all the exhibitors will be competing for attention. She recommends an exhibit design company who can custom build something specific to his brand.
  4. The exhibit design company creates a Partridge Family themed exhibit complete with TV monitors that will play episodes from the show, a stage that has original props for people to look at, and a sound system to play songs from their records. The design and buildout of the booth is $25,000. Danny is now committed for a total spend $35,000 but he knows it’s going to be worth it — he’ll earn that back, and then some.
  5. The booth needs to be broken down, loaded into road cases, and shipped from the design company in Los Angeles to the convention center in San Diego. Once it gets there, it’ll have to be loaded in and re-constructed by a crew of union specialists. Labor and transport fees cost $5,000. (There may also be some bribes involved, that’s a whole other story that I’m not getting into because I don’t wanna get punched in the face.) Danny’s total spend is now $40,000. He raids his kids’ college fund — after all community college is free in LA, no?
  6. He arrives at the convention center the day before the conference opens. The exhibit hall is massive! It takes him nearly an hour to find his booth because it’s tucked waaaay in the back in what’s bound to be a low-to-no traffic area. He calls up the conference sales rep to ask her WTF but she tells him that “premium locations” are reserved for “platinum sponsors” and she’d love nothing more than to discuss how he can purchase such a sponsorship for next year’s convention. There’s nothing she can do for now, sorry.
  7. Because of the crappy location of his exhibit, he’s going to have to work harder to grab peoples’ attention. What can he possibly do at this late stage of the game? How about making use of that bandstand! He knows of a Partridge Family tribute band, they wear the costumes and all and look & sound like the real deal. He calls their manager, turns out they’re available, and they’re willing to work the duration of the 3-day show for $3,000. He decides to go for it, but before signing the contract he finds out that his cast-mates from the original TV show still perform as The Partridge Family. They charge way less than the tribute band. He hires them at a total cost of $200.
  8. Oh, but what about the SWAG! The other exhibitors are giving away some really cool stuff to draw people in. Since The Partridge Family’s music is considered “bubblegum” he calls up a corporate promo company and rush-orders 5,000 gumballs with his face printed on ’em. Cost including rush fees is another $1,200. Total spend at this point is now $41,400.
  9. He’s hired 3 people to staff the booth to handle sales, collect leads, and do traffic control. They, and he, will need hotel rooms and meals. Hotels always jack prices during big conferences so a room at the nearby Motel 6 will cost $666/night and he’s going to need to get 4 of them. For the 3 day duration of the conference, staff salaries will cost $3,000, hotel rooms $8,000, and add in around $1,200 for meals. His total cost is now $53,400.
  10. The head of the crew setting up his both walks over to tell him there’s nowhere to plug in the lighting, video screens and the amps for the band. Danny forgot to order electricity — yes, the convention center makes you pay extra for that, and you also need to pay for one of their staff electricians to come over and plug everything in for you. An electricity drop that can handle his power needs plus the electrician’s time to basically do nothing more than plug power cords into outlets amounts to another $1,500. Danny takes out a 2nd mortgage on his house as the total cost is now $54,900.
  11. One of his staff walks over to ask how they’re going to collect leads for follow-up after the conference. All the attendees have bar codes on their badges for exhibitors to scan for lead capture and they don’t have a scanner. Oh, you need to rent that too — lead capture scanner for 3 days = $1,000 = total of $55,900
  12. Wow there’s a lot of expensive gear in this booth and stuff tends to “walk away” from conference exhibits after hours. Danny hires a graveyard-shift security guard to watch over the stuff at a cost of $750. He’s now in for $56,650.
  13. Finally the show opens! There’s a mad rush of attendees and the booth is a huge success! Danny is surrounded by so many adoring fans he’s completely overwhelmed. They are thrilled to have face time with him, and he forms lasting connections that will result in loyal “customers” for life! This couldn’t happen any other way and is the key component of what makes the live conference exhibit unique. The merchandise flies off the shelf. He develops carpal tunnel from signing so many autographed pictures. Lead collection is through the roof. Even though the drummer in the band has a heroin addiction and keeps nodding out in the middle of songs, the music and the video and everything else is such a magnet that people are now lining up in the aisle to get in.
  14. It’s the second day of the show. Things are slowing down. People are mainly coming by for the giveaway gumballs — a man of gargantuan proportions grabs about 50 of them to stuff in his pockets and crams another 8 or so into his mouth.
  15. It’s last day of the show and it’s completely dead — traffic has dwindled to nearly zero. He and his staff just want to pack up and go home already, but overall it’s been a smashing success. He’s raked in $100,000 for a total profit of $43,350! Not only that, he’s got over 5,000 leads for follow up and many of those people will wind up buying even more stuff off his website. Nice!
  16. The conference is finally over. As the last stragglers of attendees exit the exhibit hall, an executive from ABC wanders by and takes note of the Partridge Family branding, videos, and music. His network owns the rights to all that so he calls up some of his goons who come over and sledgehammer the entire exhibit to the ground. Well, at least Danny won’t have to pay to have the booth shipped back up to LA and stored until the next conference, because there won’t be a next conference!
  17. Danny settles the copyright infringement lawsuit for $200,000 resulting in a net loss of $156,650. He eats candy bar lunches for the next 7 years.

Despite the fictitious nature of our “case study subject”, anyone who’s ever been involved in this side of the business knows that everything up to and including item 15 above is real. There are an infinite number of potential curveballs in the conference exhibits game.

We have, however, demonstrated through this case study that (if done the right way) live conference exhibits have the potential to drive substantial amounts of revenue, heighten consumer mindshare, build brand awareness, and grow customer loyalty. It’s a shame that the conference exhibit in its physical form is a gone, gone, goner — at least for a very long while. But, as that door closes, another opens — there is now huge, untapped potential to shift the paradigm of what a “conference exhibit” means. We have a present opportunity to evolve the model and make even more revenue flow for exhibitors and conferences alike.

How we re-imagine and re-shape this into a virtual form may be the biggest challenge the industry currently faces, and it’s IMPERATIVE to figure out if the industry is to survive. It’s an economic lifeblood, and we just can’t let it bleed out. It’s time to begin that discussion — I look forward to diving in.

The Conference is Dead! Long Live the Conference!

In olden times (4 months ago, was it?) live conferences offered great opportunities for learning, connection, discovery, and incomprehensible demoralization. Over the years I experienced all that and then some.

In 1998 I got a job that had me demonstrating video & film post-production software at trade show exhibits. The first one was an absolute whopper. The NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) conference is a week-long endurance test that takes place every April in the former home of Elvis Presley (and current home of Andrew “Dice” Clay), Las Vegas, Nevada. It draws 120,000 people from all over the globe and offers everything you can possibly imagine in a large-scale live conference experience. The expo floors are massive, the variety of session topics are vast, and the stench of bad breath gives you night sweats for days.

As a rookie demo-monkey I made every possible mistake in the book. By far the worst was getting swept up in a raging river of alcohol that flowed right over the Hoover Dam and back onto the exhibit floor the next day. Soon thereafter I had completely lost my voice (not a good look for a demo guy) and by the end of the week I’d become a shriveled raisin. This was not a conference — for me it was a fraternity hazing.

Having curtailed the after-hours hi-jinks, I spent a few more years shilling at conferences for software companies in the film & video post-production industry before becoming a “subject matter expert”. I started giving talks of my own at events all over the place — Sundance Film Festival, HOW Design Conference, Adobe MAX, and NAB to name a few — and got to share my thoughts and perspectives with my peers without having to sell anyone on anything. Best of all I got to wear one of those red “Speaker” ribbons taped to the bottom of my conference badge and strut around the place like a big shot while stuffing my face with unlimited free Doritos from the Speakers’ Lounge.

Today I’m a civilian. Even though I still give the occasional talk, I’m usually an attendee and pay for my badge just like everybody else. I invest my time and money in it because there are valuable things for me to gain at certain conferences — things I can’t get any other way.

Well, now there needs to be another way — it’s all been shot to hell for the time being. The death bell for the live conference industry as we know it has been tolled. We are in the midst of a rebirth, and in order to grow a healthy new child we need to start with a thorough examination of the past.

What story does the past have to tell, what was life really like for a live conference attendee, the Cro-Magnon if you will, in the olden days of 4 months ago? Which pieces should we pick off the bones to keep, and which should remain discarded in the La Brea Tar Pits?

Here is the typical live conference end-user experience from the perspective of Cro-Magnon:

  1. Congratulations — you’ve just made the decision to attend a live conference! Or perhaps your boss just made that decision for you. Before you hit “send” on that rant of an e-mail you’ve got going, buckle up — you’re about to get a whole lot angrier as you:
  2. Investigate your travel and hotel options. Better do it now or you could be SOL. Back in 2000 I waited too long to book for the IBC conference and wound up with a $350/night “hotel room” behind the kitchen of a rat-dump in the red-light district of Amsterdam. I never realized how the sound of bottles being smashed could be so calming.
  3. Peruse the conference agenda and sign up for sessions — do this the instant you’ve finished booking your travel. There are only so many seats in each room and the good sessions fill up fast. Make haste lest you suffer the dregs. I’ve sat in on more than a few bottom-of-the-barrel breakouts over the years that were nothing more than thinly-veiled sales pitches chock full of bogus claims.
  4. Head to the airport and the roulette-wheel that is our air travel system. Pray to whatever God it is you pray to. If you’re an atheist may you find God now. If you can’t find God then may you find 4 mg of Xanax and a bottle of tequila because you can’t pray away a seatmate on a red-eye who’s got chronic flatulence and night terrors.
  5. Hopefully you got Step 2 right. Otherwise, when you leave the airport terminal tell the cab driver to take you right past the Wynn Resort to the Circus-Circus hotel where “everyone’s an ass-clown”.
  6. “Hello and welcome to our hotel! Are you here for the conference? Well, step right this way to the check-in line where you’ll find 150 of your fellow attendees to keep you company!”
  7. Bail on the check-in line, leave your luggage at the bell stand, and head on over to the convention center to pick up your badge.
  8. Follow the “Conference Registration This Way” sign to the South Hall. Once you’ve arrived the sign says “Exhibitor Registration Only”. A friendly “conference ambassador” says walk to the North Hall for “General Registration”. You get there and see another sign reading “Press & Media Registration Only”. Another friendly “conference ambassador” directs you to the Central Hall. Get there to find that registration has closed for the day. Buy a seventeen dollar hot dog and find a place to sit on the floor. Begin to question all your life decisions.
  9. After a bad night’s sleep, wake up bright and early for the Day 1 Keynote. Executives! Celebrities! Sneak peeks at new technologies! It’s excitement and energy at it’s finest, but make sure to arrive plenty early to get a good seat. Thirty minutes should be enough, right? Well, everyone else started lining up 3 hours ago so you wind up sitting in the back and watching it on TV.
  10. Time for lunch! The conference may be providing this as part of your registration fee, in which case all you need to do is line up with 20,000 of your new best friends at the buffet line. The guy in front of you is shaving because he left his hotel room 12 hours earlier to line up for the keynote.
  11. Attend your first breakout session. The reason they’re called “breakouts” is the presenter might suck so bad you’ll want to “break out” of there as quickly as possible.
  12. Hit up the coffee and snack station and drink your fifth cup of coffee of the day.
  13. The coffee isn’t working anymore. Visit the restroom. Fall asleep on the toilet.
  14. Visit the exhibit floor. So much cool new stuff to see! Demos to watch! New toys to play with! WHY ARE MY EARS RINGING SO LOUD???? WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE TURN THE FAN OFF????
  15. Attend the opening night cocktail and networking event. It’s a great chance to make new connections! With a craft beer and jalapeño poppers in hand, introduce yourself to someone new and try to mutter your name through a mouthful of cheese and breadcrumbs. Lean down and stare awkwardly while reading the name off their badge. “Presssur tu mt yu Mrssh Umfloofoo.”
  16. Wow, it’s been a looong day. Your feet are killing you, right? But at any conference there is always after-hours fun to be had, right? Who knows where the night will lead! Just remember to keep a few dollars on hand for tipping the bailiff when the time comes. A little kindness goes a long way when he’s attaching the GPS tracking bracelet to your ankle — if it’s on too tight it’ll cut off the circulation to your foot and you’ll have a nasty limp when you go back to the courthouse for the arraignment.
  17. Repeat steps 9 thru 16 for as many days as the conference lasts, then head back to the airport. You’re finished, done, kaput. All you want at this point is to put the whole thing behind you for a while. You settle in for your red-eye flight home and the guy seated next to you was at the same conference and wants nothing more than to jabber in your ear about it the whole way back.
  18. You’ve finally made it home. Say hi to the kids, give ’em a hug, it’s a miracle they can recognize you at all. Nonetheless you try and trick them into believing the SWAG you picked up for free on the exhibit floor are actually presents you bought for them.

And there you have it, the “customer experience journey” of the live conference attendee. Whaddayathink, maybe there’s room for improvement there? Things we can learn from? Maybe take those learnings into account as we begin to mold the virtual conferences of the future?

Next up I’ll take a look at the experience from the exhibitor’s perspective, including top tips on how to find the right guy to bribe at the Javitz center so you can get your shipping cases back at the end of the show.

The Great Burden of 1958

sheaThe view from my season tickets at Shea Stadium – Loge Reserve Section, 11 Row E, Seats 5 and 6. I took this photo right before the first pitch of Game 4 of the 2000 World Series, which Derek Jeter popped over the left field fence for a home run. The Yankees took the series in 5 games.

My hometown The Bronx New York has a reputation that doesn’t need to be explained to anyone.

When I lived in London at age 18, my Aussie and Kiwi roommates were amazed that I didn’t carry a gun to protect myself. Poet Ogden Nash famously wrote “The Bronx? No Thonx”. The teachers that taught me there were often so damn ignorant they told us the borough’s namesake Jonas Bronck was Dutch (he was actually a Swede).

No, I didn’t like growing up there at all. On top of everything, I was freakishly tall as a kid, and as my height outpaced my musculature I was an easy target. There were kids in my 6th grade class who had been left back 3 times and had siblings in prison, and they didn’t fuck around.

Worst of all, I had to root for The Mets.

The most successful and storied professional baseball franchise in United States history, the New York Yankees, makes it’s home in The Bronx. Even people who’ve never watched a baseball game in their entire lives have heard of the “Bronx Bombers”. The Babe. Lou Gehrig. Pride of the Yankees. “My hometown team”. When I tell other Baseball Fans I’m from The Bronx and despite this root for The Mets, they want to put a bullet in my head.

Please let me explain how this all happened.

My father spent his teenage and young adult years living in a residential hotel in Midtown Manhattan with my grandfather. They spent many weekend afternoons at the Polo Grounds, enjoying the superb play of the New York Giants baseball team who were a perennial contender in those days. The Polo Grounds was demolished many years ago.

Directly across the very narrow Harlem River from the Polo Grounds site, sits Yankee Stadium, home to the mortal, sworn enemy of every baseball fan in the universe (multiplier effect applies to all fans of the Boston Red Sox, and NY Mets in that order).

The year was 1958, and the owners of both the Giants and Dodgers diarrhea’d all over their loyal fan base and brought the franchises to California. New York City was without a National League team until 1962 when the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club came into existence. The “Mets” began their generally hapless existence by losing many, many games in splendid fashion at the Polo Grounds, shitting all over the greatness of Willie Mays and others (ironically Mays would join The Mets as their star player during the swan song of his playing career).

There was just no way any Giants fan could possibly become a Yankees fan. That would be like me joining the nazi party while simultaneously swearing allegiance to oliver cromwell. For this reason, my dad (like all good Giants fans) became a Mets fan. I inherited this condition.

Nobody who follows baseball in New York City, in a sincere and genuine fashion, ever roots for both teams. It just isn’t done. When I meet someone from New York who roots for both Mets and Yankees, it reminds me of the girls I dated in college who were dating me and had romantic relationships going with other girls at the same time. Way too scattered to focus on anything.

As luck would have it, my sworn enemy the Yankees had one of their Golden Eras in the early 1970’s when I was a child growing up in The Bronx. All of my friends witnessed the greatness of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Thurmon Munson and so many others. Billy Martin kicked sand on umpires. Crucial playoff games were won on impossible walkoff home runs. Fans rained down thousands of chocolate bars upon the Red Sox outfielders on “Reggie Bar” day. Full size bats were given to every fan as a promotion, and somehow nobody killed anyone. It was a magical time to be a Yankees fan.

Us Mets fans? Not so much. 1973 did give us a National League Pennant under the leadership of the great Yogi Berra as manager, but after that we had Dave Kingman, George Foster, and an overall Zen and mentality that I can best describe as “Quantum Losership”.

That’s not to say we didn’t have an absolutely wonderful time at Shea Stadium watching The Mets lose. You could spend $3 for a General Admission ticket that would grant you access to any seat you wanted in the expansive Upper Deck. People smoked cheeba and performed sexual acts on each other in the upper rows and nobody gave a shit. Wacky promotions by the team included a live Mule and mule cart which transported visiting relief pitchers from the bullpen to the pitcher’s mound. It was never, ever, ever boring. Best of all, it was quality time bonding with my dad. No distractions other than the inept play on the field, and the occasional death threats issued to each other by random drunken fans.

In my High School years, I used Shea as a refuge, sometimes taking the 40 minute QBx1 bus ride from Co-op City to Flushing, then jumping on the 7 train for the 1 stop ride to the stadium to watch the game by myself.

Shea Stadium was one of those projects that tried to be too many things to too many people, built in an architectural era defined by concrete. It was designed for both baseball and football games, as well as concerts and other types of events, and as a result wasn’t particularly well-suited for anything at all. Everyone remembers The Beatles famous performance there (which my Dad attended and, like everyone else who was there, he will tell you that nobody could hear a damn thing aside from the sound of 50,000 hysterical teenage girls).

In 1986, when I was a sophomore at SUNY Purchase, The Mets won the World Series. The final game was wrapping up during an orchestra rehearsal, and my roommate Roger Lee pumped his fist in the air every time The Mets scored a run (he had his Walkman on tuned to the game, and the conductor was for some reason willing to tolerate his occasional hysterical outbursts from the Trumpet section). By the time rehearsal was over and I’d returned to the dorms, The Mets had won it and the place was going bezerk. A sweet little hippy chick I knew named Serena was running back and forth down the halls screaming like a lunatic. I don’t think she’d ever even seen a baseball game in her entire life.

After that, I stopped caring about baseball for many years. Then, in the late ’90’s my friend Paul Morrill invited me to partner on a pair of Mets season tickets with himself, our pal Dan Petrafessa, and a friend of theirs named Alex who they knew from the Jam Band scene (Paul and Dan worked as lighting designers for the band Blues Traveler –  my bandmates and I were friends with those guys as well as the guys from Spin Doctors. A story for another time.). I figured “what the heck” and went in with them. We went to lots of games and had a blast. Yukked it up with the lunatic fans, ate hot dogs and drank beer with the great bassist Bobby Sheehan (RIP) and many other friends, and delighted as my borderline-psychotic section-mates razzed Matt Dillon when he sat next to us during the 2000 World Series. You never saw a celebrity take such abuse. “HEY MATT!!!! WHASSAMATTA, YOU COULDN’T GET NO BETTER SEATS THAN THIS?!?!?!”

The 1999 and 2000 post-seasons were a dream. We chanted so loud at Larry “Chipper” Jones and John “Racist Bastard” Rocker of the Atlanta Braves that it completely messed with their heads and The Mets nearly took the pennant in ’99 after a 16 inning game in the rain that ranks as one of the most surreal experiences of my entire life.

But then, in 2000, The Yankees kicked our asses in the World Series and it was all over. I gave up my seats the following year.

When I moved to San Francisco in 2005, I remained loyal to The Mets. Yes, I adopted the Giants as my new #1 team. I have this as a birthright due to the shit I went through as a kid that resulted from my father’s loyalty to the NY Baseball Giants. I wore my Mets stuff whenever the Mets came to town, and relief pitcher Billy Wagner even tossed me a ball during batting practice, a ball which I still keep on my desk to this day as a stress relief toy.

Today I’m pure Giants. When The Mets come to town I root against them. I hope the scumbag owners who now own The Mets get forced to sell.

If some crazy event happens in my life that makes me a billionaire, I will buy The Mets and help make them the best team in baseball. I will then put The Yankees out of business for good.

The new stadium that replaced Shea, the Citibank Field or whatever it’s called, I have zero interest in whatsoever. I’ve driven past it many times enroute from JFK to The City and back, and it looks like nothing more than a corporate billboard.

Shea was a shithouse, yes. But make no mistake. It was MY shithouse.

The last pitch I witnessed with my own eyes at Shea Stadium, the year before they knocked it down, was the last pitch of Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series. Carlos Beltran had just looked at strike three down-the-middle with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, and the Saint Louis Cardinals had a good old celebration on our field before flying back to Missouri with the Pennant.  Dan Petrofessa had hooked me up with seats to the game, as always, and he & I sat together in the very last row of the farthest reaches of the deep right field upper deck, where I watched so, so many games with my dad as a kid. They don’t let you smoke joints in those seats anymore.

In the far reaches of the upper-deck at Shea, the trajectory of the ball appears Kafkaesque. This is the domain of the most rabid variety of Met fan, those who will stop at nothing to be at the game. They would sit in the lighting rafters above, risking their lives, any day of the year, if stadium management would let them. So would I.

. . . This is the Story of Johnny Rotten.

In late 1994, Bob Ludwig had just mastered “Altitude” for us, and despite the man’s genius at his craft, we were very unhappy with the results. In the recording and mixing process of the album, we had taken great care to maintain the dynamics that were an important part of the songs themselves as well as the band’s sound overall. Ludwig’s take on it was to wipe that all out in order to make the record sound great on FM radio. That was not his idea, by the way, it was in fact the directive from Howard Thompson, our A&R man. Those were his instructions to Nick Sansano (Producer) and Brad Leigh (Engineer) and was never mentioned to us until after the fact.

You see, The Rake’s Progress operated as a 5-person consensus and we were very neurotic people at the time. The grown-ups (Howard, Nick, Brad, and our manager Patti DeVries) had enough of our group dysfunction by the time we were done with the 3 months of production, tracking, and mixing to the cost of a quarter million dollars of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ money.

We were told by Nick that he and Brad would be driving up to Portland Maine together to work with Bob in his studio there, and they would take our aesthetic wishes along with them. They never told us about Howard’s directive so we were pretty shocked and upset at what we heard when we put the DAT on at Matty Kaufman’s apartment and heard all of our precious dynamics gone.

We were so upset, that Bob Ludwig wrote us a very thoughtful letter on his thinking behind the decision to level everything with compressors. He said that since this was supposed to be an “FM Radio Hit Record” he used his very fancy and expensive high-end compressors to do the leveling, rather than have the crappy compressors the FM stations use to the job. This is an entire topic unto itself, but to explain it briefly, FM radio stations compress their signals to level out the dynamic range (i.e. loud/soft). They do this so their signal doesn’t over-modulate and bleed into other frequencies (which is illegal), and also so that the music has more “presence” (i.e. maintains a level and relatively loud “in your face” sound to hold your attention). Some stations compress heavier than others, and the worst culprits of all are the stations that play the “hits”. We were poised at the time to have a “hit record” and that’s why the label was paying all this money to get this dang thing out there. Bob’s rationale was that the record would sound better on the radio, and he was right about that, but it made the CD listening experience pretty dang lousy.

Since we were on the road so much at the time, four of us in the band maintained a small apartment-slash-crashpad on East 10th Street in Manhattan, which we shared with a few of our siblings. One evening, Tim and I were hanging by ourselves around drinking beers and mulling the fate of our beloved new album, when the phone rang. It was Howard.

“Hey Bob, any of the guys around?”

“Yeah, Tim is here.”

“Cool. Why don’t you and Tim come over to the 10th Street Lounge. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Hanging with Howard always meant fun, and the fun was always on the label’s dime (which technically meant our dime actually), so Tim and I headed down to the bar which was just a block away.

The 10th Street Lounge was a bar which we frequented often since Mary Denny (the woman in the Cheese Food Prostitute album sleeve) was the manager, and we never paid for a single thing, ever. The whole staff treated us like rock stars even though we were only marginally successful. Actual celebrities drank there and they treated us just the same way as they did Kate Moss and Mike Piazza.

It was a Tuesday night and the place was practically empty. At the main bar towards the front sat a few couples making all lovey-dovey, and in the small bar at the rear sat Howard with a guy wearing a winter parka, the hood pulled over his head so you couldn’t see who it was. They were having a chat and a laugh with the hot female bartender. In addition to being a haven of free drinks for us, the bar was staffed with beautiful girls who were very happy to spend quality time with guys in marginally successful rock bands such as Tim and myself.

We approached Howard and his Mystery Friend. Howard turned and smiled at us.

“Bob, Tim, I’d like you to meet my friend John.”

The man pulled down his hood slightly and extended his hand. It was John Lydon AKA, Johnny Rotten, whose post-Sex Pistols band PIL Howard had signed back in the ’80’s.

I froze up completely.

“Aaaaah, so THIS is the band.” he said with a curious look in is eye. Tim and I shook his and and sat down.

“They’ll have what I’m having, luv.”

The bartender fetched a bottle of Stoli and scooped some ice into a cocktail shaker. She poured a healthy measure of the vodka in to the shaker and mixed it with a spoon. Strained into our glasses, was basically pure vodka watered down with a bit of ice.

“Cheers, boys! Howard is a dick!”

Tim and I laughed hysterically, as did Howard. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world Howard would have sat there and took that from.

We tossed back our shots, and my initial nervousness melted away as I realized this guy was going to be fun.

“Pardon me boys, need to visit the loo.”

John stood up and walked back to the restrooms. Howard leaned in to me and TIm.

“Listen, guys, don’t bullshit with him. He hates that. Just act normal, be your normal selves, and we’ll all have a blast.”

Mr. Rotten returned a moment later and rejoined the group.

“John, these wankers have written a song about me called ‘Howard Is A Drag'”.

John’s face lit up – he was delighted. “Oh, that’s WONDERFUL! I’ll be in the music video, and we can do it on a speedboat in the middle of the ocean. We’ll make Howard wear a leather thong, and I’ll pierce his scrotum. Then I’ll attach the chain of the anchor to his scrotum and  throw the anchor into the ocean, so as the boat speeds along Howard is dragged overboard and submerged completely.”

We all cracked up hysterically, including Howard once again. I could not believe what I was hearing. I still envision that video concept fondly in my mind sometimes, and can not help but wonder if what happened next that evening may have killed the possibility of it ever happening (believe me, I was of the mindset at the time – delusional or not – that we could somehow actually pull something like that off).

After 4 shots of the straight vodka, I was feeling pretty drunk. John expected us to keep up with him drink-for-drink and I was not about to let him down. To be honest, I was AFRAID of letting him man down because of what he might do or say to me, and I didn’t want him to kick me out. I was having  way too much fun.

As the bartender teed up the next round of shots, I realized if I drank it I might actually throw up right there. So, as the other guys raised their heads to tilt back their glasses, I chucked my shot from the glass under the bar towards my feet. I slammed the glass down, pretending that I’d drained it, and the boys were none the wiser.

I repeated this “dumping the shot” for the next 3 or 4 rounds and all was good.

And then he caught me.

“You WANKER! HOW MANY SHOTS DID YOU NOT DRINK??”

“Uuuh, one or two”

“FOUR SHOTS FOR HIM! NOW!”

As she teed up the shots, I realized it was either drink or go home. I was never in a Frat before, but I imagine this would be the closest thing. Hazed by Johnny Rotten.

I used every ounce of self control I could to get the liquid past my throat and into my stomach. I felt the first contractions of vomiting but held my ground. Good. Bullet dodged.

“Alright, Howard, it’s time to get the band LAID!”

I am not now nor have I ever been into prostitutes – it’s something that I really can’t relate to. Especially back then when I was single. The chase was more exciting than the catch, and besides I don’t think I could ever have sex with anyone I hadn’t at least gotten to know a little. That and all the cooties of course.

Tim didn’t do the hookers either, so we politely passed and John and Howard went off to do whatever it is they got into the rest of the night. We never saw Johnny Rotten again.

Cracked

I just spent 3 very long days attending the 2015 Adobe Tech Summit at the Moscone convention center in San Francisco. This was a rare opportunity for me, as I now am involved in something I like to describe as “Dark Ops” from outside the organization (if you want an explanation of what I mean by that, hit me up in the comments and we can discuss). Myself and my colleagues Joey Princz and James Begera were the only “outsiders” in this invited crowd of 3,000 brilliant and accomplished technologists, all current Adobe employees.

Due to the nature of the trust placed in me by my former employer and current client, I cannot reveal much of what went on there, but one thing I can do is share the following story that involves non-confidential, publicly available information.

I also need to state that this is provided for informational purposes only and I don’t’ recommend you try any of this at home as to do so would be highly illegal and could definitely land you in prison.

On the first night of the conference, there was a Tech Fair where many teams from within Adobe showcased various inventions and technologies they are working on. I saw a lot of mind-blowing shit there and I really wish I could tell you all about it.  You will find out about some of it eventually.

Part of the fair involved a “Hacker Village” where members of the Adobe Security team led hands-on labs in which you could learn how to perform common hacks so you could also learn how to prevent them from happening to you or your team. We read about how hacks can happen all the time, but for me, learning to do it hands-on, and then hacking my own Android Phone and Clipper card (SF Bay Area transit money card) with readily available, inexpensive components and software still has me shaken.

There were other labs which involved even scarier things like hacking passwords and entire websites. They were really crowded and I wanted to let the real professionals who really need to know this stuff have the floor so I didn’t do any of those. Security is a hot topic at Adobe, as there was a major breach there last year. What’s even more frightening, in a way, is that this is just the tip of the iceberg, just the things we know about. We should all consider that all information on the internet is fair game for anyone. That has become very apparent to me.

HACKING THE CLIPPER CARD

The Clipper card uses RFID technology, which is used by many other types of electronic key ID cards, garage door openers, Passports, etc. Basically, the card has a unique ID code that the RFID chip transmits.

Here is how I hacked my own Clipper card and basically stole it from myself:

  1. Using a very simple physical device, involving components purchased from Radio Shack, connected to a laptop via WiFi, I scanned the area for RFID signals. This device can detect any RFID within 2 feet. It detected the Clipper card in my wallet and displayed it’s unique alphanumeric ID.
  2. Using a blank card of the same variety, I used another simple and readily available device attached to the laptop to create a new card with the same ID.
  3. I now had an exact copy of my Clipper card. I could use it on any SF Bay Area transit and the money would be deducted from my account, just as if it were my own card. Since this card is linked to my credit card, just imagine the damage that could be done here.

What can be done to prevent this shit from happening to you? Keep those ID cards in a wallet that is designed to block the RFID frequencies. You can find them online and at the geek supply store nearest you.

HACKING THE MOBILE PHONE (or any other device that uses WiFi to connect to the Internet):

This lab also involved a laptop, a $30 scanner purchased from Best Buy, and an application readily available from many online hacker communities.

Here is how I hacked my own phone in order to steal everything I am doing on the Internet via that phone, including my logins, passwords, account information, and all the rest. The whole shebang:

  1. With the scanner attached to the computer, and the software app running, I pressed a button to scan for WiFi connection requests in the area. This might not be the proper technical terminology for this, but the general gist is the following:
    1. When you connect to any WiFi network, your phone remembers it. Let’s say for the sake of this example, I had connected about a month ago to a WiFi network with the SSID “SFO FREE WIFI” when waiting for a flight at San Francisco International Airport.
    2. Whenever my phone is on, and my WiFi is on, and I’m NOT currently connected to a WiFi network, the phone is looking for “SFO FREE WIFI” along with any other networks I had previously connected to. The phone remembers EVERYTHING including any previously used logins/passwords associated with those previous connections of mine. (This goes for any WiFi enabled mobile phone or tablet, by the way. iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, whatever.)
  2. I could instantly see that my phone was searching for “SFO FREE WIFI” amongst other various previously used WiFi SSIDs.
  3. I then used another readily-available app to create a new WiFi network called “SFO FREE WIFI”.
  4. My phone connected to this bogus “SFO FREE WIFI” network instantly, assuming it was the one I had previously been connected to at San Francisco International Airport a month ago.
  5. Via this app, all my information was now passing through a “trap application” (also not a true technical term) in which everything was being captured.

How can you prevent against this? Keep your WiFi turned off on your phone whenever you are not in your home or office or any other place where you are connecting to a trusted network. It also saves your battery.

In fact, don’t connect to ANY WiFi network until you’re completely convinced that it’s a reliable and trustworthy source.

When you do connect to a trusted public network such as an airport or hotel, uncheck the “remember this network” box if it exists on your device.

That is all the scaremongering I have in me for today. Carry on.

Edie Le Dee Dee

Edie died over the weekend. She’d found out that she had it bad with lung cancer last summer, and kept us up to date on Facebook on all the goings on with her state of mind and body. As was her nature, Edie maintained a positive, grateful, and joking attitude to her very last post Feb 9, 2015, on the day she was admitted to the hospital and subsequently diagnosed with pneumonia. The next thing you know, her husband Eugene told us she was gone.

I haven’t seen Edie since 1991, when she performed with me in a number I put together for a show at the Comic Strip in NYC. I was doing my own hacked-up and decidedly subversive version of “PDQ Bach”-like classical music parody in live shows and on the radio at the time, and the program director at classical station WQXR invited me to perform on a “Classical Music Comedy” bill that ironically included Peter Schickele himself, the man behind “PDQ Bach”. The show was MC’d by Bob McGrath from Sesame Street and Elliot Forest, the WQXR morning DJ. A morning  DJ on a classical station. Nice guy, but dry, dry, dry, dry, dry.

Bob from Sesame Street was a sweetheart, by the way, just like he is on the show.

The number I decided to perform is one of the stranger things I’ve ever recorded, and one of the only things I’ve ever recorded “lead vocals” on. A goof on a “renaissance” minstrel tune, probably the closest thing I can compare it to is Sir Robin’s minstrels in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Edie was one of the background singers at the live WQXR performance of that number, as was the late, great Michael Klausner (a SUNY Purchase classmate who was funny and talented beyond measure and died way, way too young). I had decided that the punch line for the live act would be me getting clocked in the head from behind with a “stunt” breakaway wine bottle prop by Michael,  then falling to the ground unconscious and getting dragged off the stage. Michael had humiliated himself in a similar fashion for me when he played the lead role in my composition “Drunk Tenor Cantata” a couple years prior, so I wanted to return the favor.

The song, which I had been told by many people was the funniest bit on the radio show, did not work so well as a live act. There were eight or so of us dressed in renaissance garb on the cramped stand-up comedy stage with our instruments. An audience of mainly older classical music fans who had no idea who the fuck I was just sat there and stared. On the last beat of the song when Michael hit me on the head with the bottle from behind, the prop that I’d bought from a specialty prop house for fifty bucks and then lovingly shielded from harm’s way for weeks somehow ricocheted off my head and landed 10 feet away in the lap of a horrified lady in the 2nd row.. I was dragged through the room of silent, confused, and borderline hostile onlookers by Michael and Edie through the packed comedy club to the lobby. My shirt had become an ashtray.

I hid until after the show, when I went up to Peter Schickele because I just had to meet the man. He indulged me in a chat, but I know the entire time he was thinking “wow, you really sucked the wind out of the place tonight, didn’t ya, rookie?”

Edie thought the whole thing was great. She thought it was SPECTACULAR. “Bob, we did it! We performed at the Comic Strip!” The fact that it was a bomb did not cross her mind in the least.

We will miss you, Edie.

Tapin’ In!

I navigated the Honda Civic into one of those New York City parking spaces where you’re not sure if it’s even a parking space at all, but this was still pre-Giuliani New York City when the police didn’t give a rat’s ass. Since I was still inept with the stick, I stalled 8 or 9 times trying to back into the spot while passers-by looked on disapprovingly. I was a Native New Yorker and yet somehow managed for the first time in my life to be marked as a tourist. Go figure.

It was 6pm and just getting dark, but the sidewalks were already empty. “Where IS everybody?” I thought. I had worked as a foot-messenger in this area as a part-time job back in high school and knew the neighborhood pretty well. Even at 6, it should be packed with people. I turned the corner onto West 28th Street and walked right into a scene from “Taxi Driver” – cars were backed-up the entire length of the block while 8 or 9 hookers in full regalia conga-lined it from car-to-car, hustling for “dates”.

“Oh, THERE they are!” I thought with a sense of relief. The “scene” would move a few blocks this way or that over time, or whenever the heat was on, but the common thread with this was that it would always take place on a block with a hotel, so that once the handshake was made there was a convenient place to go and get the dirty work over with. Apparently, the “scene” had just made it’s way over to the block I was to audition for Gregg & Tim on. Well, at least if the audition sucked I could go back downstairs and drown my sorrows in the sweet arms of Chlamydia.

Hooker-copThis image pretty much sums up the police attitude towards “vice” in 1980’s New York CIty. Photo credit: booyorkcity.com

I made my way down the block, found the building, and rang the buzzer. The door buzzed open, and I walked down a narrow, dimly-lit hallway into a very small elevator that was barely enough to fit me and my bass case. I pressed the button for the 6th floor, the door slammed shut with a heavy “thud”, and the elevator jerked upwards with a start, then stopped for a brief moment, then slowly began ascending with a horrible mechanical grinding sound that made me think someone was trying to crush a refrigerator in a trash compactor. This was not alarming in to me in the least, by the way, as most every band rehearsal space in The City was in a similar state – housed in a building that had dodged condemnation for years because the landlords knew who to bribe in the building department and how much to give in order for the guy to look the other way. It was much cheaper to do it that way than actually keep the buildings in functioning order.

I often imagined a modern-day re-enactment of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire taking place in one of these buildings – with dozens of panicked rock band musicians trampling each other in a mad-dash to the exits, draging their still-attached amplifiers behind them.

I stepped off the elevator and onto the 6th floor, then knocked on the studio door. Several bolt-locks were unlatched from the inside, and the door swung open.

“YEAH?????”

There stood a tall, curly-haired, glasses-wearing, pot-bellied-tie-died man who looked just a few years older than I. He was holding a bowl of cat food in his hands. The guy just stood there and looked at me with such an intense expression of disdain and resentment that I would’ve thought I had knocked on the wrong door if I wasn’t so used to it by now.

You see, pretty much everyone I had to deal with in those days in the lower levels of the NYC “rock music ecosystem” was a total dick.  Guitar store salespeople? Dicks. Studio owners? Dicks. Club bookers? Dicks, Dicks, Dicks. All of ’em. I think it was the first item listed on the job requirements to get a sales job at Sam Ash. “OK, now. Let’s take a look at your resume. Hmmmm, I see here it says that you’re a complete and total dick. How does $150k a year sound?”

we buy guitarsAbove: One of the fine establishments on West 48th street in the 1980’s where you could walk in off the street with a pocket full of cash and still get treated like a piece of shit by the staff.

The cat-food-holding man just stood there, staring me down like I was a door-to-door Jehova’s Witness who had just interrupted his family dinner.

“Uh . . . I’m supposed to be meeting some guys named Gregg and Tim here for an audition?”

His cat paced back and forth nervously behind him, awaiting her dinner.

“Mrrrrrroooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwww!”

“LUCY………..SHUT!!! THE!!! FUCK!!! UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“MRRRRROOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!”

He turned away abruptly, set down the bowl of cat food, and walked through another door to what I imagined was his “office”, slamming it shut without saying another word.

I entered the “reception area” and could see a door ajar down a dark hall to my left. I headed down the hall, pushed open the door, and standing right there before me was Hank Letterman. Holy shit, it was really him.

“Hey, Bob. Great to meet you!”

Gregg looked exactly the same as he did on TV, and I couldn’t help but burst out in laughter. “I’m sorry, man. I just love your stuff on TV so much that the mere sight of you cracks me up.” I realized that might be taken the wrong way, but he didn’t seem to mind. I think he was used to it.

One of the other two guys, looking like a somewhat slightly younger, thinner version of Morrissey without the coiffed hair-do, came over and introduced himself. “Hey, I’m Tim, thanks for coming down all the way from Westchester. This is Tim Curry, our drummer.”

From the riser, Tim Curry extended his hand with a big smile. He struck me as a bit older than the rest of us, and had a vibe about him that told me “this guy isn’t from New York.”

I put down my bass case, took off my jacket, and began the most awkward part of the audition – the chatty bit that happens while you simultaneously try to unpack your instrument, tune up, and attempt (in vain) to get a halfway-decent sound from the crappy amp provided by the studio.

“Yeah, so the drive down here was crazy. There was an accident on the Hutch.”

“Cool. What kind of bass is that?”

“Oh, it’s an Ibanez Musician, I got it back in high-school.”

The first thing rock band musicians do upon meeting other rock band musicians is is to sniff out each other’s gear. It’s the same exact thing that happens when dogs sniff out each others’ butts. Gregg had a black-and-white Rickenbacker 360 running through a Roland JC-120 guitar amp. This was the standard-issue setup for “alternative rock band guitarists” at the time (as an example, see the same exact guitar/amp setup in the Smiths video on my post from a few days ago). You could basically walk into any guitar store in America and say “give me an REM” and they would hand you a Rick 360 with a JC-120.

Our “awkward pre-audition setup chit-chat” was suddenly interrupted by the loud and unmistakable sound of some heavy-duty duct tape being ripped from it’s roll. I looked over to Tim Curry, and saw him perched atop the drum throne, his right foot held high in the air. In his right hand was his kick-drum pedal, while a really long piece of duct tape dangled from his lips.

In a single motion, he pressed the pedal to his foot, took the tape from his mouth, and started wrapping it around his foot and the pedal together, around and around several times so that his foot was completely, firmly, solidly affixed.

“Tapin’ in, boys! Tapin’ in!”

As he continued to apply additional long strips of tape, wrapping them around the now-joined-together-foot-pedal, getting tighter and tighter with each turn, I stood there completely baffled. I had played with dozens upon dozens of drummers of all shapes, sizes, and levels of ability in my life, and had yet to see anything even remotely close to this. If you’ve ever played the drums before, you know that even though it can look like nothing but a whole lot of heavy-handed booming and bashing, it actually requires a great deal of tactile control and feel on all four limbs, including the legs and by extension the feet.

If you’ve never played a drum kit before, imagine duct-taping your foot to the gas pedal in your car in the manner described above. Can you even imagine trying to drive your car that way?  “Maybe this guy is on to something here,” I thought. “Maybe I should be taping my right thumb to the ‘E’ string, so my hand doesn’t slip off. Don’t need the ‘E’ string much anyway.”

The first song we were to play was one of Tim and Gregg’s original numbers called “Fact of the Matter”.

“You want me to show you the chords?”

“Nah, I play by ear. Just start the song and I’ll pick it up.”

Tim Curry counted us off, and the song began. A mid-tempo intro with a jangly guitar arpeggio, rimshots on the snare drum keeping time.

“D major, walkdown to B minor, walkdown from G to E,” I thought to myself as I joined in. Simple chord changes, piece of cake.

Then Tim began singing. “Stuck in the middle of . . . relationship and lust . . . have I been unjust . . . don’t know who to trust.”

“Man, this guy needs to put away the rhyme dictionary,” I thought to myself as the song built towards the first chorus. The melody was nice. The jangly guitar bits were nice. Tim’s voice was nice. This was sounding pretty good!

Then we hit the chorus and the drums kicked in.

For those of you that have never played bass in a rock band before, the musical relationship you have with the drummer is very intense and intimate – just like the relationship you have with your sex partner. It’s exactly like fucking in the sense that if you can’t get a good rhythm going together, if you keep struggling to get into a groove to no avail,  then you’re in for a very frustrating and unsatisfying time.

We finished the song, and I couldn’t help but imagine what it could sound like with a drummer who didn’t have his foot taped to his kick-drum pedal.

NEXT–> Laying down some “Ground Rules”

Some Drugs Are Stronger Than Heroin

Going down to “The City” to audition for bands I’d met through the Village Voice had become a ritual for me at this point. I was living close to my college in Westchester County New York, and had just purchased my first new car which was the absolute cheapest car on the market aside from the Yugo (even as a college student prone to bad decision making I had the sense to run for my life from that thing). I hadn’t even gotten the hang of driving a stick shift and yet I was making the 45 minute run back and forth once or twice a week to Manhattan for band auditions. This resulted in my brand new car being downgraded to “prop from Sanford and Son” in a single semester.

I think it’s really important to mention that at this point I no longer wanted the life I had built for myself as a “legitimate professional musician”. The gigs were mostly boring and unsatisfying, and I was already making a living at it even though I had just turned 20.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had in fact become addicted to the drug I first tasted when I did those “Kids From The Real Fame School” shows back in high school. I was still chasing that high, to no avail. Playing weddings and bar mitzvahs, in orchestra pits for musicals, and recording sessions for middling singer-songwriters wasn’t doing it. There are only so many times in your life that you can play “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang before you either take the gaspipe or get yourself into some serious heroin.

leonardbornsteinHere’s a Fun Rake’s Progress fact for ya . . . in the late 1980’s both Stu and myself played in the band of “Leonard Bornstein, the Bar Mitzvah King of Northern New Jersey” (pictured above).

Let me break it down for you – most “professional musicians” are miserable. I learned this first-hand in my 2nd year of high school when I performed with the New York Philharmonic as part of the All City High School Orchestra program. We did a couple of concerts together every year, with both orchestras onstage at Avery Fischer Hall, alternating seats (meaning I was seated in the bass section in between two members of the Philharmonic bass section). The track I was on with my music at the time was focused on becoming a professional orchestral musician, so getting to have this experience was, to me, like telling my son who loves baseball “hey Theo, guess what….Your little league team is going to play a game together with the Giants against the Dodgers. Pagan, Posey, Pence, and Crawford are batting 2, 4, 6, and  8 in the lineup, and you, Nate, Oscar, Gabe, and Josh are batting in the 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 spots. You’re batting leadoff, Son, go get ’em!” It was kind of nuts to be given this opportunity at such a young age.

The morning of the first concert, we assembled in what I was told was the Philharmonic’s dressing room, backstage at Avery Fischer. They were big, nondescript rooms, one for the women and one for the men, containing various sized lockers, showers, big mirrors, and the rest of what you’d expect in a locker room, nothing fancy. There was to be a morning rehearsal, then an afternoon concert, and there wasn’t much to do at this point but wait around until we were called up to the stage.

After a few more boring minutes, some grown-ups began showing up. They were a pretty rough looking group, unkempt, unshaven, stinky, and not looking happy at all to be there. I turned to my buddy Victor Lawrence and said “holy shit, check it out Vic. This isn’t the Philharmonic’s dressing room – this is the dressing room for the janitorial staff!”

“Yeah, what’s going on with that?”

Our conversation was interrupted by the disembodied voice of the stage manager coming through a loudspeaker. “All-City High School Orchestra Members To The Stage, Please!”

We grabbed our instruments and were led up the stairs and onto the great stage where Leonard Bernstein once held sway. I made my way to my seat in the bass section, and anxiously began warming up by playing the opening measures of “Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila” which was the first piece we were to rehearse with “The Phil” that day. It kicks off with these insanely impossible virtuostic scales that we’d been practicing for months. I was wound up so tightly that it actually felt like I was about to shit my pants right there on stage.

A few moments later, one of the janitors from the locker room came up beside me, a half-smoked unlit cigar dangling from his lower lip. He was holding an incredible looking, rare, Italianate upright bass, and was also moaning somewhat. He plopped his fat butt down in the seat beside me, at which point I realized the man was John Schaeffer, Principal Bassist of the New York Philharmonic. Looking like WC Fields. Smelling like he’d rolled right out the door of the Jameson’s distillery tour in Dublin Ireland.

ny_phil_schaefferAbove: The great John Schaeffer, sans unlit cigar, with his wide head of grey hair and bloated cheeks, as seen in the back of the bass section behind conductor Zubin Mehta

The man didn’t say a single word to me then, nor did he say a single word to me the entire time despite the fact that we were 2 feet away from each other. I don’t think he was a nasty guy. I just think he was miserable.

A few moments later I had a new compadre on the stand to the right of me, one John Deak. He was also somewhat unkempt and grizzled at that hour of the day, but introduced himself in a kind manner and asked how long I’d been studying. I asked him how many years he’d been in the orchestra and his eyes glazed over. “Ohhhhh, I dunnooo… thirty-two, thirty-three yeeeearssss???”

I figured the man was high on drugs, some kind of high-grade grownup drugs that nobody at my high school knew about (and believe me when I tell you I went to high school with some people who were VERY advanced in that area). He was a really nice guy but it was clear to me that he was SO over it. Thirty some-odd years of sitting in the same orchestra, playing the same exact “standard repertoire that the ticket buyers want to hear” year-after-year. These guys were MISERABLE! And this was supposed to be one of the GREATEST ORCHESTRAS IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD!!! At that moment, I realized that if this was what success looked like as a professional orchestral musician, I wanted no part of it.

I’d get to know John Deak some years later, as I performed his composition “The Ugly Duckling” for my senior recital at Purchase. It turned out he wasn’t on drugs at all, he’s just a really spacy guy sometimes.

There is lots more to this story, and once again I find myself digressing on non-Rakes Progress related things to the extent that I need to steer myself back to the story at hand. There will be time to go back and tell the rest of that one later. The whole purpose of me telling you the story above, is to illustrate that by the time I went down to “The City” to audition for Tim & Gregg I was completely done with wanting to be a “legitimate professional”. I wanted to be in a BAND. A band that wrote and performed the music that I wanted to hear and play, and made records and traveled the world sharing that music with everyone.

In high school, I was the guy spending hours sitting in his room by himself for hours with his bass guitar, listening to records by Rush and Yes, trying to learn the bass lines note-by-note. That, in lieu of hanging with friends or chasing girls or anything else normal teenagers do. I was the guy fantasizing that I was Geddy Lee or Chris Squire or John Entwhistle. This whole “professional musician” thing was DEFINITELY NOT FOR ME.

Interesting to note that the most insulting thing you can say to a serious music student at a serious music school is “you’re being unprofessional”.

So, I made it down to the rehearsal studio on West 28th Street where I’d be meeting and playing with Tim, Gregg, and their drummer Tim Curry for the first time. There were 2 main buildings full of band rehearsal studios in Manhattan at the time – one called “The Music Building” and the other one called “The Music Building”. This one was in neither, which was somewhat of a shock as the phone conversation for setting up an audition always ended with “which Music Building, the one on 30th or the one on 8th Avenue?” This time it was in a completely different location, in a building I’d never been to before.

Damn, I did it again. I ran out of time today to get to the story I wanted to tell. That will have to come tomorrow. To tease you old-school Rake’s Progress fans, it will include the story of our first time playing the following songs:

The Fact of the Matter

Charm

Arcade Colors

NEXT–> Tapin’ In!

I Prefer To Be Called Henry!

The way I bonded with my father throughout my teens was through television. We were both avid TV watchers, and one of our favorite shows by far was Late Night with David Letterman. In the 1980’s, Letterman was still subversive.

I was a big enough of a fan that I would regularly attend live tapings of the show at the NBC studios in Rockefeller Center — sometimes 2 or three times a month. It was only 3 short blocks from my high school, and they taped at 5:30pm, so I could just walk over there after 8th period, ask people standing in the audience line if they had any extra tickets, and go in and enjoy the show. It was always a riot, and I got to watch some classic performances in person by comic heroes of the day such as Andy Kaufman and Pee-Wee Herman.

One of the funniest shows they did all year were the Christmas specials, where they would bring in “Dave’s family” for a wholesome evening of songs and Pat-Boone style revelry (Pat Boone was actually on the show too). The family included teenage son Hank Letterman, who basically stole the show every time he opened his mouth. Have a look:

Hank was one of the funniest characters I’d ever seen on one of the funniest shows I’d ever seen.

Which brings me back to the “ad in the Village Voice”. After some back-and-forth leaving of and listening to answering machine messages, I found myself on the phone with a friendly guy named Gregg Lapkin. He told me that he and his friend Tim, whom he’d known since High School, had recently dropped out of the Parson’s School of Design to focus full time on starting a band. They’d been writing songs together, with him writing the music and Tim writing the lyrics.

Through a prior ad, they had already found a drummer and a bass player, but the bass player didn’t work out. He had quit after one rehearsal. The guy called himself “Zebra” –  he wore spandex and told Tim & Gregg that their “situation waszn’t rockin’ it enuff” for him.

Finding bandmates through the Voice was always a delicate situation.

The conversation flowed right off the bat with me and Gregg. Cold-calling people off these ads, you never knew what to expect — I’d done it many times before and the person on the other end of that phone line often turned out to be some type of cluster-fucked mix of delusion and psycopathy. That, or they were just assholes.  It was nice to have a normal conversation with a nice person for a change.

Gregg and I spent some time getting to know each other a bit beyond just discussing music, and at one point he mentioned that he was also involved in some acting.

“You know the David Letterman show? I play this character Hank Letterman on the Christmas specials.”

I froze up. No way.

“That’s YOU?”

“Yeah, I also do commercials and have a manager that sends me on auditions for other stuff sometimes . . . ”

The guy was so completely nonchalant about it, but to me it felt like I was speaking with Robin Williams or something. The rest of our conversation notwithstanding, there was no way at this point that I was NOT going to go down there and audition for these guys.

NEXT–> Some Drugs Are Stronger Than Heroin